Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Some additional thoughts on this new Marvel RPG (and 24: The RPG)

No, I haven't played it yet - Blaster's birthday stuff didn't really leave us with time or energy to try it out and he had a much-delayed project for school that had to be finished too. BUT - I've read through it again and listened to some actual play podcasts (thank you BAMF & Vigilance Press) and thought I would share some more pre-game thoughts.

First, I think that once the players and the "Watcher" have gotten familiar with the mechanics it pretty much accomplishes the goal of simulating superhero comic books. It's not a simulation, it's very narrative-driven, but realizing and accepting that from the outset makes it OK. If you want to have an arm-wrestling contest between Thing and Colossus, you're still going to want to use Champions or M&M or MSH or ICONS or pretty much any other supers system out there. If you can refocus your view on how a superhero game should run though, where it's less about raw numbers and more about the dramatic situation, then this could be a lot of fun too. Just as an example, Affiliations:

Mechanically the play of the game revolves around building dice pools from your Affiliations, Distinctions (Kind of like Qualities in ICONS), Powers, and Specialties (Skills).  Typically, you can take one die from each of those categories if you can relate it to the current situation/challenge/attack. Everyone has these three affiliations shown above, and you can always use one of those dice: Solo if you're the only character involved, Buddy if it's only you and one other hero, and Team if it's you and two or more heroes. Every character has a d6, d8, and d10 allocated between the three choices. Right away we have a mechanic that effectively communicates and demonstrates which heroes are better with a team and which are better on their own. I can't think of an easy way to do this in another system. Maybe some kind of limited skill level in Champions, but even that would be a little clunky. This is nicely integrated into the normal mechanical system, it's flavorful, and it's an at-a-glance way to show a major character trait.

Distinctions are similar to Qualities in ICONS in that they represent something that stands out about the character. Characters tend to be very different here - and it's not like there's a lack of material to draw from - but the mechanics are the same regardless: You can present it as an advantage of some kind and add a d8 to your pool, or you can present it as a disadvantage, add a lowly d4 to your pool, and take a Plot Point. Again, we have a simple, flavorful mechanic that gets a player thinking creatively and both makes sense and has a definite mechanical impact in play. It's very well done.

Plot points are the player control mechanic and can be used for a variety of things. It's good to have several of them available, and the ability to take a d4 Distinction in return for gaining one gives players a decent way to get more of them when needed instead of being completely dependent on the DM, er, Watcher.

Adding in Superpowers and Specialties a player will be able to throw 4 or 5 dice most of the time, from d4's to d12's. Plot points let players add and manipulate the dice in various ways, and dice can be given to another player as well. It's a pretty slick system all the way around, and I'm even starting to like the damage system after hearing it in play.

If you're on the wrong end of a massive attack, "Godlike Durability" is a good thing to have!
Damage, sorry, "Stress" can be Physical, Mental, or Emotional, and some powers lend themselves more to one than the other. A successful attack inflicts some kind of stress which is measured in dice, as in d4 Stress or a d10 Stress. A character can take up to a d12 in each kind of stress. If pushed beyond the d12 limit then it's lights out and may result in longer-term damage called Trauma. The truly interesting thing about Stress is that it doesn't impair your abilities - instead your opponent adds the relevant die type to his die pool when he does something that affects you. It seems counter-intuitive (for example, in Shadowrun as you take damage you take increasingly larger penalties to your own die rolls) but it does work. being punched in the face by Iron man and taking, say, a d10 Physical Stress means that the next guy to punch gets to add a d10 to his die pool, making it more likely that he will connect and do some damage. It's a little abstract, in a similar way to M&M's damage rolls, but it does seem to work.

Now not all is perfect. I wonder if there might not be a degree of sameness problem after multiple sessions, even playing different characters, because they all work the same way. Since every Power and Specialty are rated in d8's, d10's, or d12's there's not much of a range, just "Enhanced', "Superhuman", or "Godlike". I suspect a year from now we will know if this is a real problem when playing a long campaign - like Civil War - or if the subtler differences between powers and characters will come out and shine in longer campaign play. Right now I can't tell but it's something to watch for.

Also, it's mapless and miniature-less (kind of going against the grain there, I know) so there's really no obvious separation of roles in the group - range doesn't really matter, so the common HTH/Ranged distinction between characters is much fainter. The Brick can't really move in and soak up the attention of the bad guys the way they can in say Champions or M&M. There's no "cover".  There's no movement rate in yards or hexes or miles per hour. All of the tactical stuff we're used to from other games goes out the window for the most part and a lot of us really like that part of these games.

Another small concern - not much on vehicles. I know it's not a big deal, but it could be for some characters. I'd like to know how to resolve what happens if someone shoots a missile at a quinjet. It can be simple, I'd just like to see some specific mechanics for it.

Finally, despite the inside-out approach to mechanics and the narrative thing I can't help but like it. It's not going to replace D&D as the main game, and I don't think it will replace ICONS & M&M and the rest but I think it has a place. It is going to depend a lot on published adventures and the plan is to base those on big Marvel Crossover events like Civil War and Annihilation and I think that's a really cool approach. It also gives me a reason to go back and read some of the original comics.  I'm really looking forward to the "Events" and I'm pretty sure we will be playing through them. I also have a strong urge to take a stab at converting some of the old MSH adventures - if I do I will publish them here - as I think those might be a lot of fun to experience via different mechanics and a different approach.

Finally finally: If any system was ever made to play "24: The Role Playing Game subtitle: The Adventures of Jack Bauer and the Counter-Terrorist Unit" this is it. The affiliations (Jack is Solo d10, Buddy d8, Team d6), Distinctions, and Specialties all work well to define characters on the show. The mechanics for assets that you can give to another character would perfectly support the whole "I'm sending the schematics to your smartphone" thing we see every other episode, and Opportunities and Plot Points work to explain some of the amazing (or ridiculous) plot changes and complications that we see over the course of a season. I think you could easily make a campaign outline based on each season. It would be a lot of work, and probably best done by someone with a license (hint hint) but it could be a lot of fun. Even using some kind of random plot twist generator could be a lot of fun. This system could handle it quite well with only minimal tweaks - and a fair amount of research for the actual adventure.

I've skipped over a ton of mechanics here but I want to wait until after I have played to cover more on the mechanics. Plus, these are the high points that have struck me so far. I'm sure more will come.


Barking Alien said...

Thank you Blacksteel for explaining the main mechanics. I wanted to address them in the recent posts on my blog but I ended up going on and on about my personal thoughts on the game as a whole. My mind also tends to fog over when I talk about rules too much.

Since I am already in the school of thought that doesn't use maps, minis, range, etc., I had no problem getting into the narrative generating aspect of the game. The mechanics that exist, while a bit confusing at first and even second glance, really do contribute to the overall experience of being in a comic book universe.

I am currently running M&M 3E but can't wait to give Marvel Heroic another try really soon.

Blacksteel said...

I at least wanted to hit the high points - it is a very different game. I saw some references to it as rules-light, as if the narrative focus automatically makes it rules light somehow. It's not. There are a bunch of rules around player dice pools, DM dice pools, and plot points. I'd say it's comparable to Champions if you sawed off the whole section on abilities, powers, and skills and just left the task resolution and combat and campaigning chapters. Other games have a big focus (and a lot of rules) around building characters - this one does not have that. It's cool, but it takes awhile to sink in.

I'm still pondering how to fit it in to some kind of regular schedule. I think it's a prime candidate for having the kids and the grownups all play together.

Champions without a map ... if it's working for you OK but I would feel like I was missing something. ICONS, sure (there's a rules-light game) and M&M probably, but Champs has all of those lovely hexes...

Barking Alien said...

Mapping Supers is like trying to catch a fish in your bare hands while standing knee deep in water. With vaseline on your hands.

At any given moment people are flying at supersonic speeds, teleporting, running hundreds of miles an hour, breating underwater, passing through solid objects and walking up walls. I decided I could try mapping Supers or shoot myself in the head since it would be about the same thing. A friend suggested I not map supers. Tried that and stayed among the living.